By Susan Schindehette Jacqueline Savaiano
January 23, 1989 12:00 PM

The set looks exactly the same. Vanna’s in place, all crinkly smiles and outrageous satin. The letters—26, no more, no less—await turning. This is Wheel of Fortune, all right, but something’s amiss. Over there, where Pat Sajak ought to be, is some guy named Rolf Benirschke.

That’s pronounced ben-ER-shka, and you oughtta get used to him. The hunky former football star may be a newcomer to national TV, but last week he took over one of the tube’s most envied slots, playing ringmaster on the daytime Wheel of Fortune. Vanna’s partner heretofore, the unflappable Sajak, has spun off to host his own late-night talk show and will continue to call the shots on the evening edition of Wheel. The day, however, belongs to Rolf. Passing the highest-rated syndicated show in history to a novice raised some eyebrows inside the industry, but Benirschke had an answer for those who wondered: Why him? “I have the best puzzle name,” says Rolf, 33, hazel eyes twinkling. “That’s why.”

Game show kingpin Merv Griffin, who selected Benirschke from a field of 30 wanna-bes, including tennis ace Jimmy Connors, has his own take on Rolfs ascent: “You can’t get with us unless your last name ends in K. Sajak on Wheel, Trebek on Jeopardy! And now—Benirschke!” The guys are both kidding, of course. In truth, Benirschke does have a modest broadcasting background, mostly as a host on Southern California radio and TV talk shows. He spent several years working the corporate motivational lecture circuit. And he also proved his star quality during 10 seasons with the San Diego Chargers, where he consistently ranked as one of the top placekickers in the NFL.

Still, even Rolf was stunned when Griffin tapped him last month for Wheel. Merv spotted the former jock last summer when Rolf was a guest on A.M., a Los Angeles chat show. Several auditions followed. Then five weeks ago Wheel producer Nancy Jones left a message on Benirschke’s answering machine anointing him Sajak’s replacement. “I was in shock,” says Rolf, recalling that particular replay. “I sort of smiled, and I thought, ‘Do they really know what they’re doing?’ ” Merv has no doubts. “In a genre with a lot of toothy, happy hosts, Rolf has a wonderful reality about him,” Griffin gushes. “I look for someone who’d be a good son-in-law. He has none of that slickness. He’s Mr. Everyman. He has a vulnerability.”

An astute observation. For beneath Benirschke’s Ken-doll exterior is a man who knows everything about life that a premature brush with death can teach. Nearly 10 years ago, in the middle of his second season with San Diego, Benirschke, then 24, collapsed on a team plane. Doctors puzzled over just what afflicted him. While they tried to find out, Benirschke lost 51 pounds and survived four major operations, including the removal of his colon. Gamely fighting back, Rolf returned to football, and went through his best years as a Charger wearing an ileostomy bag under his uniform. After that, he can put playing a game show host into perspective. “Wheel of Fortune is a little side street that presented itself to me, and I take things as they come,” he says, legs stretched out on a coffee table in the living room of his airy Spanish-style house in San Diego. “I’m risking a lot. And if it doesn’t work out, a lot of people are going to know about it.”

At least eight million, to be precise. Benirschke, however, knows all about pressure. As the son of the chairman of the Dartmouth medical school pathology department, Rolf was raised amid high expectations in bucolic Hanover, N.H. An avid soccer player, he didn’t try kicking a football until his senior year in high school. In 1973 Benirschke enrolled in the University of California at Davis. “I didn’t want to play football,” he says. A zoology major, he was intent on pursuing academics, not athletics.

A friend convinced him to try both. He did, hitting the gridiron during his four years at Davis and kicking well enough to earn a pro-football draft pick in 1977—albeit No. 334 of the 335 players chosen. Rolf’s mom, brother and sister thought the NFL was a great opportunity; his dad wasn’t so sure. “Kurt was bewildered that anyone would be paid to play professional football,” says college buddy Leigh Steinberg, now Benirschke’s lawyer. “He expected his son to dissect pig bladders instead of kicking them.”

Drafted by the Oakland Raiders, Rolf was cut during pre-season camp. San Diego promptly signed him. In 1979 the violent stomach pains that had dogged him the previous season finally landed him in a hospital emergency room. At first doctors thought Benirschke had ileitis, a disease of the digestive tract. At one point, he says, “It was not a matter of whether I’d play football again, but of whether I’d live. Once, when my dad came in to see me, I felt so sick I was ready to hang it up. I was hooked up to all these tubes, and I told my dad that I didn’t want them to keep me alive on those machines. My dad’s a doctor and a very positive person. But all he said this time was ‘Okay, I won’t let them.’ It struck me at that moment just how sick I really was. From then on, I began to fight it.”

Physicians eventually identified Benirschke’s condition as ulcerative colitis, and with the removal of his colon the agonizing abdominal pains disappeared. The cure was only half the battle. Rolf, 6’1″, had dropped from 174 pounds to 123; a local writer described him as “looking like he just got out of Auschwitz.” Working with Chargers trainers, he began running and lifting weights. In less than a year he was kicking again.

By the time he retired in 1987, Benirschke was the third most accurate place-kicker in NFL history. During his career with the Chargers, he racked up 766 points, making him the team’s all-time leading scorer. He played in the 1982 Pro Bowl and won the 1983 NFL Man-of-the-Year award. Along the way, Rolf launched Kicks for Critters, a fund that raised $1.3 million over eight years to support the San Diego Zoo’s Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species, founded and directed by his father. He also earned local celebrity status. So great was Benirschke’s popularity that in 1979 Charger fans donated more than 400 pints of blood before one of his operations. “He’s well loved in this city,” says Phil Tyne, a friend and coach from San Diego who guided Rolfs recuperation. “The guy could run for mayor and be elected in a second.”

Once one of Cosmopolitans most eligible bachelors, Benirschke is still available—although perhaps only in the technical sense. For the past year Rolf, who served as an escort for Brooke Shields during her high school internship at the San Diego Zoo, has dated Mary Michaletz, 32, a speech pathologist. “We are taking it very slowly,” says Benirschke, who concedes he isn’t the easiest person in the world to get close to. “In the NFL there were walls around me that people couldn’t penetrate. Then I became ill, and important years of my life were stolen. When I recovered, I needed to live those years, to totally come and go as I pleased and not have to explain why I was staying another day in New York or going to Africa.”

Benirschke intends to keep his house in San Diego and commute to his new job, since Wheel tapes a month’s worth of shows in a single week. “I’ve read a lot about Hollywood,” he says. “It sounds scary. Living in San Diego is real important. I have strong relationships here.” Those include Mary, and his parents, with whom he still tries to dine weekly. So for now, he’s savoring both his success and the latest turn of fate’s wheel. “Life has a way of humbling you,” he says, “and it also has a way of making things exciting. It deals you a hand. You can fold and drop out. Or play it and hope the next one is better.” Play on.

—Susan Schindehette, and Jacqueline Savaiano in San Diego